As I sit in the dark cell, there is a pervasive odor of feces and urine from a toilet that did not flush, and I have a claustrophobic feeling that the walls are about to cave in on me. Twenty people share six cold, bare-metal bunks, and the man sitting next to me says he will die from leukemia if he does not get medication soon.
I close my eyes and try to convince myself that worse things could happen to me than being locked up in a Tijuana jail cell with 18 other people. But not much worse. And for some peculiar reason, I ask myself again and again: What would I be doing right now if I were leading a normal life? Breathing the fresh air of San Diego, maybe. Dodging seaweed while swimming at Imperial Beach. Taking a stroll through Balboa Park after dark, perhaps. But it does little to assuage the feelings of rage that I have for the police who locked me in here because I had no money to bribe them.
Until you have been incarcerated in a foreign jail, you have no idea how important it is to behave yourself properly when visiting another country. I am and always have been an obedient man by nature, but there is a point at which tolerance becomes extremely difficult to muster, and patience is an almost laughable virtue.
San Diegans’ desire to travel across the border is a peculiar one, especially the desire to make a second trip. Curiosity pulls us down the first time. For me the first time was in 1985, when I was in the Navy and was conned into going by two of my shipmates. I had no real desire to see the place; I had heard plenty about it from friends and acquaintances. Eventually I learned from bitter experience that all of the horror stories they shared with me were quite true.
I can handle the trash in the gutters, the odor, and even the aggressive shopkeepers, and I can certainly tolerate the groping women in the sleazy cantinas, but it is difficult for me to bear seeing the begging mothers with their sad-faced infants. It’s not that I couldn’t afford to give them some money — a dollar could probably buy them enough food for a day or so. But I know that I cannot play savior for all of them, and any charity would only help for that day; tomorrow they would be just as destitute.
So why did I return? I went down there to buy a leather jacket, which costs about $200 here and about $45 over the border. I had my plans carefully detailed in my mind: First I would haggle some shop owner out of a decent leather jacket for a ridiculously low price, then eat lunch, have a couple of Coronas, and make it out of there before nightfall, laughing all the way back to the border. The entire schedule shouldn’t take more than an hour, I thought. At least that was the plan.
However, while sitting in a saloon cooling down with a Corona, I became involved in a conversation with a stranger, an American, who called himself a political liberal. And since I am a conservative, we discussed the notion of writing duet columns, like a print version of CNN’s Crossfire.
Later, after searching about the city for something to catch our attention, we ended up at a bar where we met the class of ’89, celebrating in a festive manner that is legal here and illegal north of the border. Because I had graduated with the class of ’79, I felt it was my duty to impart all of the wisdom I had accumulated during the ten years since I left high school.
That, of course, took several hours, and it was well past nightfall by the time I realized they were preoccupied with their own futures and totally uninterested in my failures. Now, I have heard the horror stories about being incarcerated in a foreign jail, both in the Navy and as a civilian. But these warnings were not too clear to me at this juncture. Had we but taken a taxi to the border, I might not have spent the night in the bote.
My companion and I had very nearly made it to the border when we ran into Tijuana’s Finest. The officers grilled us in great detail about what we had been doing in Tijuana and our destination. All of the talking, however, was in Spanish, and this Total Stranger/Good Friend I was with was trying very hard to keep up with them. I was learning my first real lesson in foreign justice: it really didn’t matter if we understood what was going on or what it was they were accusing us of; they only wanted money. I had placed $40 in my shoe earlier that evening, but of course, I could not find it by this time.
When we both were unable to produce any cash, they accused us of being drunk and disorderly. Right as they were about the first half, the last was a total invention on their parts. In fact, I had never been so cooperative with any cop in my life.
The interrogation continued for a disquieting length of time, and through all of it, I honestly believed they were only going to give us a hard time, then let us go. But when they handcuffed us and threw us into the back of their car, I began to get just a little bit nervous. We were never read any rights (presumably because we didn’t have any), nor were we officially informed of the charges against us. We were simply put into the police car and sped off to the jail. But even as we were driven around the city by the police, I was still certain this was all some sort of scare tactic.
As we were escorted into the jail in Tijuana, I was prepared to remove every item from my pockets, items I was sure I would never see again. When I was arrested once in Michigan, the police had even taken the laces from my shoes. The reason, they said, was to prevent people from hanging themselves, though I had great difficulty trying to visualize a corpse dangling from a shoestring. Rather than take any of my belongings, the Mexican officials only asked me my name and address, and the address I gave them was contrived. I was between apartments and was actually sleeping in my car, but I saw no reason to tell them this. Then we were told to follow one of the guards.
In the Navy, a gunner’s mate in my division had once been arrested in TJ for drunk driving, and the officers on the ship filled our heads with gruesome details of his ordeal, some of which, I later learned, they had invented. He had been in the cell for five days, and when he was finally released, the captain made him appear in a videotape that was broadcast over the ship’s television system, describing what had happened to him in there as a warning to all of the crew. Unfortunately, I missed seeing the video but heard from the gunner’s mate himself that the place was a haven for diseases and lice, that it was overcrowded and filthy, that the food was inedible and the water nearly undrinkable. These descriptions flooded my brain as we pulled up to the jail.
The police led us through a revolving door made of steel bars. Beyond this was an enormous three-story cement chamber with antiquated vents and fans in the ceiling. It smelled horrible, and I could see rats in a far corner of the room. The chamber itself was filled with at least 30 ten-foot-square cells. The officers steered us to the right, and we went up a flight of concrete stairs to our cell on the second floor. I was anticipating 3 or 4 people in there but shuddered when they put us in with at least 18 others.
Finally locked inside, I glanced around, slowly taking in the surroundings. There was barely enough room to stand because people were everywhere. There were six bare-metal bunks, and each bunk was shared by two or three people, curled up into individual balls, trying to make enough room. I saw people who looked as if they had been in captivity for weeks. There was obviously no laundry or showering facility available, no linen, and there was only one toilet, located toward the back wall. Later, I would learn, to my chagrin, the toilet did not even flush.
Still, genuine fear eluded me because I continued to believe the police were only trying to scare us and would let us go as soon as they accepted the fact that we really didn’t have any money. Later, as I sobered up a little and realized at last the kind of mess I had gotten myself into, God and religion continued to enter my mind as the one and only recourse for the increasingly frightening situation I was facing. To this day, I am convinced that it was my religious background that kept me from panicking in there. I really believed deep within my heart and soul and mind that God would not let me remain in there long enough to go insane. I recalled reading something in the New Testament about how Saint Paul had been in jail in Rome and an angel had come and freed him. So almost immediately after I was placed in the cell, I tried to get the others to join me in a little communal prayer, convinced that we could melt the lock on the cage. Desperation can make you do some illogical things.
There were three or four young men walking about the chamber running errands — carrying water hoses, bringing us lit cigarettes and coffee that wasn’t too bad — and they would periodically ask for money. The deal was that if one could bribe them with enough cash, they would pull some strings to get us released from the cell. Total Stranger/Good Friend seemed unwilling to believe that I was no longer in possession of the money I had hidden in my shoe earlier that evening. They wanted $40, and I didn’t even have 4 with me. I held my watch, a $20 Timex, aloft, hoping it would be tempting for them, but they were uninterested.
An hour or so later the guards brought in a short, rat-eyed drunk who made it clear that he did not intend to share a jail cell peaceably with Americans. I gathered he was trying to get the others to help beat us up; he joked incessantly about “gringos” with the other cellmates. Suddenly, he attacked Total Stranger/Good Friend, punching him square in the jaw. My companion nailed him back fairly solidly a couple of times, but it didn’t seem to slow him down any. I grabbed the belligerent little man and tried to wrestle him to the floor, but he was much too active. Trying to hold him down, however small he was, was like trying to hold down a wild bull. It took the aid of some of the others to help pin him to the floor. Eventually he calmed down, but only for a couple of minutes; before long, he was back at it again, trying to deck old Total Stranger/Good Friend for having blond hair.
My companion was winning the fight and seemed to be inflicting the most damage, but when the guard came and saw the fight, it was the drunk they pinioned and hauled off to God only knew where; they left me and my companion alone. I decided that the best thing to do, considering my situation and the fact that I was still a little bit drunk, was to fall asleep by sitting on the floor with my knees in my face, and maybe I would awaken to find this whole thing was just a wicked dream.
Sleeping was the only way for me to dodge the misery of how I was beginning to feel. I made every attempt to do as much sleeping as was possible, but it never seemed to last very long. I don’t think I was out for more than half an hour when the others had noticed that the door had been left unlocked and partially opened. I looked carefully around the rest of the cell, then the chamber, and seeing no guards about, Total Stranger/Good Friend and I decided to make a run for it. Actually, we did no running but instead walked carefully through the jail, looking for guards, trying to find a way out of the maze in which we were trapped.
Shortly, we came to the revolving door we had encountered on our way into jail earlier that evening. I pushed my way through and Total Stranger/Good Friend followed me. The door led us into the front desk, where we had been escorted in by the police who had arrested us. We actually had the nerve to be surprised to find people with badges in there, eyeing us and knowing well what our intentions were. Only then did it occur to us that we would be in even bigger trouble than before. Total Stranger/Good Friend had the common sense to run back to the cell, and so did the others who had followed us. I, however, was stupid enough to sit down in despair, cursing myself for setting foot beyond the border.
I was immediately seized by a big cop who grabbed me by the hair on the back of the neck and yanked me up into a standing position. With no thought, just blind action, I belted the cop, not knowing who or what it was that had done this to me. Needless to say, this changed things for the worse. The big cop started punching me in the face. I could have struck back, but I knew, even as it was happening, that if I did it would be tantamount to pouring gas on a fire that had already begun to burn out of control, so I just let go, and he continued to pummel me, knocking me back in the direction of a small cage in the far corner of the chamber. There was one other person in there: the same rat-eyed drunk who had earlier assaulted my companion in the crowded cell.
After throwing me in the cage, the officers hosed both of us down with cold water for several minutes. The cage itself was about four feet wide and six feet long, very dark, and made of thick cement walls and those padlocked, wrought-iron bars on the other end where all of this water was pouring in. The floor sloped slightly downward toward a clogged drain at the lowest end, and the water in the cell rose higher and higher until it was nearly at my feet. Since there was no toilet in the cell, the drain was full of sewage, which was rapidly covering the floor.
I took a long look about the room, and my heart pounded in fear. I have an active imagination, but it didn’t take much imagining for me to recall horrible accounts of people who had been in cells like this one for years, fed spoiled rice and rotten meat and given stagnant water to drink. There was no way that I could have remained in that cell and maintained my sanity even for a day. This was not the way I was supposed to end my days on earth — stuck in a stinking jail cell shared with rats, a crazed cellmate, and a rising puddle of sewage. I thought of my family and how hard it would be for them when I apparently vanished; because, at this point, all my earlier hopes that we would be freed shortly had now been shot down, and I was no longer certain that I would even survive this ordeal, much less be released.
I didn’t deserve this. Pedophiles deserved this. Gang members deserved this. Colombian drug lords deserved this. But here I was, guilty only of being drunk and failing to bribe the authorities, rotting away in a foreign jail cell like a bad tuna sandwich.
Philosophy, of course, brought me no closer to getting out of the cage, but it was one way to pass the time in a situation that was slowly and surely robbing me of my sanity. The thing that kept pressing on my mind was, ‘Just how long am I going to be in here anyway?’
“You be out of here tomorrow,” said my crazed cellmate.
“What?” I replied, called briefly out of my shocked reverie.
“You an American. You be out of here tomorrow. You lucky.”
Lucky, I thought. Yeah, that’s me all right. Call me Mr. Lucky. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Americanos always leave the next day. I be in here for a week, maybe two.”
I didn’t dare believe what he was saying. After all, I had resigned myself to die here. “I don’t think so,” I told him.
He tried to explain something to me, but I was having a hard time understanding, though I gathered that, for some reason, he was trying to get me out of the cage. Although it wasn’t true, he seemed to feel responsible for my being there. He began hitting the bars of the cage with his belt and kept telling me to yell when he hit them. Then I understood he was trying to get the guards to think he was beating me so they would let me loose. But I wouldn’t go along with his idea, since that would only bring the wrath of the big cop down on him.
I finally sat down and buried my face in my arms, pretending I was at the Hotel del Coronado. But my cellmate kept waking me up. There are people in this world who simply can’t last five minutes without running their mouths, and this guy was one of them. He woke me up at least three times to ask me what time it was, though I couldn’t imagine what possible difference that could make in there.
After what seemed like six hours but was actually closer to two, one of the guards came and unlocked the cage. I couldn’t believe I was glad to be going back to the old cell where the 19 others, including Total Stranger/Good Friend, were still hanging around. I was relieved to get out of that sewage-infested hole, but I was also somewhat concerned about my health; I was still soaking wet. And of course, as my gunner’s mate friend had informed me years earlier, the cell itself was a breeding ground for diseases.
“I heard they hosed you down,” said Total Stranger/Good Friend. It was the first time he had spoken to me since the police had locked us up.
“Yeah,” I said. “Beat me up, too.”
“It doesn’t look like they beat you up.”
“I guess I got kind of lucky. But he really tore up my lip.” I showed him the inside of my lip, which was lacerated.
“What did he beat you up for?”
“Because I belted him when he grabbed me by the hair.”
“That wasn’t very smart.”
“Yeah, well, to tell you the truth, I’ve kind of figured that out now.”
I sat down on the seat of the nonflushing toilet and tried to get back to sleep. I wasn’t thinking too clearly or rationally, and I was now so dazed that I honestly believed that if I thought about it hard enough, I could turn myself into a two-inch-tall midget and slide under the bars or perhaps dissolve into a puff of smoke and float out one of the vents in the ceiling. Total Stranger/Good Friend was banging on the cell bars, and I was tempted to get up and tell him not to do that or he’d be beaten and hosed down and thrown into the infamous toilet cell. He managed to get the attention of one of the guards, and I thought, “You are not going to like that cage.”
“Listen,” he was telling the very angry-looking guard, in a slow, measured cadence. “I have to get medication soon or I’ll die. Muerto. I have leukemia. Do you know what leukemia is?”
“You have money?” the guard asked him.
“No, no money.” He looked completely crestfallen. “But if you don’t let me out of here, I’m going to die.”
“We will tell somebody,” the guard said, then left.
One of the cellmates who had been sitting next to me on the toilet seat overheard the conversation with the guard and gave up his space. It was the most comfortable position in the cell that was unoccupied.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had leukemia?” I asked him. This was the first time I’d heard about it. “Is it smart to go out drinking when you have a disease like that?”
“Does it make a difference?” he asked me.
I said nothing for a moment, then asked him, “What kind of medication do you take?”
“Anargosil,” he replied. I had never heard of it, but then again, I wasn’t a pharmacist. I didn’t even know leukemia victims needed lifesaving medication. But I wasn’t about to say anything else.
For the next three or four hours, I drifted in and out of sleep. I don’t recall dreaming anything at all, but I can still remember my intense disappointment every time I awakened to find myself still prisoner, that this wasn’t just some horrible nightmare after all. At 6:00, the chamber-boys shoved a water hose through the bars of the cell, and someone used it to try to flush down the waste from the toilet. This meant we had to temporarily sacrifice our throne, but about the same time, the guards called the name of somebody who had been sleeping on one of the bottom bunks. I quickly absorbed his position, and Total Stranger/Good Friend sat next to me. He told me that his disease was starting to take its toll and that he was feeling dizzy. He did look a little green, but then, if I’d had a mirror I probably would have noticed myself suffering from the same problem.
Within an hour, a mild panic was further clouding my already hampered reasoning, and by now, the incarceration was affecting me physically as well as mentally. My stomach felt as if I had eaten barbed wire for breakfast, and I was breaking out in a cold sweat. Our new sitting area on the bunk did have one serious flaw. It was located directly in front of the toilet, which, of course, gave us a direct, clear view every time somebody used it. I remedied the problem by burying my head in my shirt and plugging my ears.
Again I began drifting into sleep when I heard Total Stranger/Good Friend say, “I don’t believe it.” I looked up and followed his widened eyes. There on the other side of the bars were two Navy Shore Patrol officers. He and I rushed to the front of the cell. Apparently, they were only on a routine check of the jail to make certain that no sailors had been penned up in there. I knew that they would be unable to spring us loose but would at least be sure to get a message out. I gave them the name of my boss and a work telephone number. Total Stranger/Good Friend gave them his mother’s number and told them his predicament of not having his medication.
From then on, I began to see just a faint light at the end of the tunnel. There was always the slim possibility the sailors might forget to deliver the messages, but only a slim one. The greater probability was that the messages would get through; that was the most encouraging thought yet. At least now, I didn’t have to think about the fact that nobody even knew we were in here.
No medication had yet arrived for my companion, and I personally didn’t believe that any ever would. I didn’t think the guards took him seriously. I was certain they’d heard a million stories about how badly someone needed to get out of jail. But I was starting to get a little concerned about him. I decided then that if it came down to one of the two of us, I would volunteer to let him go free. Then I thought I heard somebody call my name.
I jumped out of the bunk at rocket speed. “Shawn Higgins! That’s me!” I screamed.
The guard opened the cell door. “Follow me,” he said.
I wasted no time. I followed him down two flights of stairs, very slowly, feeling as if I were in a dream. Surely, I thought, I am going to wake up and I’ll be back in that stinking cell again.
I was led down through the same revolving door through which I had tried to escape the previous evening. There was another big cop there (not the same one I had belted), who informed me that I would have to do some work for them, and then I would be set free. I smiled at the prospect of working for them to win my release. I would have worked in the sewers to win my release.
They instructed me to go to the front desk and check out with the clerk. I went to the clerk and told him my name. He looked at me with a blank expression. I repeated it and he gave me another blank face, then he asked me if I had any money. My heart sank. I told him that I didn’t. Again I was terrified that I would be sent back to the cell, but at the same time, I didn’t dare believe anything that bad would happen now. After all, I kept thinking, it could not possibly get worse than it had been.
The clerk went back to the big cop and said something to him in Spanish. The cop looked at me and gestured for me to follow him. We went first into a place that was apparently some sort of lobby, where two people I had seen in the cell earlier in the morning were talking to other people; I took it as a good sign. But then we veered off to the right and headed back in the direction of the chamber again; not a good sign. I asked him where we were going, but he didn’t answer me. It wasn’t necessary; I already knew. I had known from the minute the clerk asked me if I had any money. I was going back to the cell.
Total Stranger/Good Friend looked almost as disappointed as I felt when he saw me heading back inside. “What happened?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, too disgusted and disappointed for words. “They must have called somebody else’s name.”
“I’m not going to last much longer in here,” he said.
“I don’t think I am either. I don’t like it when people play games with my mind like that.”
He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I really don’t have leukemia. I’m just telling them that to try to get out of here quicker. Sometimes they speed things up if they think somebody’s sick.”
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t think people who had leukemia had to take lifesaving medicine.”
“As far as I know, they don’t. I’d do anything to get out of here right now.”
“Me too. If I have to stay in here for very much longer, I’m gonna go nuts.” I buried my head in my hands again and tried to fall asleep.
It was then that I began to try prayer. I had decided over a year earlier that I was going to become a born-again Christian and had for a long time lived up to that decision, but when I had serious car failure on my way to work going northbound on 163 the past month, I swore that if God did not fix my car for me on the spot, I would never go back to church again. Now I was convinced that the only way for me to get out of there was to reconsider. “Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened for you. Everyone who asketh shall receive, and anyone who seeketh shall find, and the door shall be opened unto he that knocks.”
I must have prayed for an hour straight when one of the people sitting next to me tapped me and said, “Comida.” I looked at the food being served, mostly out of curiosity. One of the guards was carrying a huge bucket of something that looked a lot like wallpaper paste. The others in the cell were anxiously waiting to have some. I told him, “Grácias, pero no tengo hambre.” (“Thanks, but I’m not gonna eat that slop.”)
Then it came to me. I could go on a hunger strike! I would simply refuse to eat until I was released from the cell! Chances were strong that these people probably wouldn’t care whether I ate or not; but as my companion had said, they weren’t too anxious to see American citizens die in their jails.
I had this most recent eccentric idea planned out carefully, when I heard somebody call my companion’s name. He looked at me, puzzled; but I warned him that it might just be the same game they had played on me. He got up and went to the bars.
“You are the one with the leukemia?” asked the guard.
“Yes,” he lied.
“The American consulate is here to see you.”
My heart leaped. If this were true, we would be out of here in no time. I tried to remind myself of my little adventure earlier and how I’d been duped into believing that I would be freed momentarily. But I could not stop thinking about walking out of this snake pit, into the United States, and starting my new life as a born-again Christian. The guard unlocked the door and escorted Total Stranger/Good Friend out of the cell.
It wasn’t very much longer that I heard my name called. I stood up, once again wasting no time getting to the gate. “That’s me,” I said, though, with remarkably less enthusiasm this time.
“You are free to go. The American consulate wants to see you.”
“Good,” said I. We started down the stairs, when he asked me for money. I told him that I had none, trying to sound apologetic when in fact I wanted to wrap my hands around his greedy throat and choke him until his face turned purple. If I had any money, I certainly wouldn’t have given it to him after all that I had been through.
We went down the same corridor that I had seen earlier, but this time we took a detour through the lobby, where the cellmates I had seen earlier were still talking. I was encouraged to see Total Stranger/Good Friend in there as well, talking to a small man with thick-lensed glasses, who I assumed was from the consulate’s office. The little man nodded to me abruptly. I sat next to him.
“You are Shawn Higgins?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I answered.
All the time this was going on, I was still nervous. I realized in some dark part of my mind that this was not yet over; they could still be playing some sort of game with us. It wouldn’t really be over until we crossed the border and were safely back in the States again. The man wrote down the information from my driver’s license and handed it back, then asked me to sign something, which I did without hesitation. This was not a smart move, actually, since the document was printed in Spanish and could have been a confession to murdering nuns, for all I knew. I just wanted out of there. I handed it back, and he left the room, saying he was going to try to get us out of there without any bail.
We had a moment to talk, Total Stranger/Good Friend and I, and he told me that he was not going to go back into that cell again, even if they threatened to shoot him. I concurred but was secretly still afraid that the big cop was going to return and order me back to the chamber of horrors. About 20 minutes later, the consulate returned and told us that we were free to go.
There are no words to describe how it felt to walk out the door, breathe the open air, and step into the sunlight. I lingered there for a moment, knowing that I would never in my life forget the past 12 hours. We thanked the man from the consulate’s office for freeing us from the dungeon, then walked back toward the border, still feeling nervous, not daring to stop even long enough to eat, knowing that to do so could be to invite yet another arrest. And this time, like Total Stranger/Good Friend, I would rather be shot. My companion confided in me on our way back that although he had been a lifelong atheist, he had actually prayed while in that cell, in the depths of despair, for a way out.
“Looks like your prayer was answered,” I pointed out to him.
He paused a moment and then said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Since then, I’ve often wondered if that made any difference to him since we parted ways and the worst was now and always would be over.
We reached the United States about an hour later, and there was no comparison to that feeling of freedom. Tonight, I was going to live like a king. I had just spent the worst night of my life and was determined to make up for it. I had been sleeping in my car for a week, but for now I would have to find a good, clean motel room.